How is a Writing Center like a Reference Desk?

In another lifetime, I was a writing teacher.  I taught first-year composition, and, before that, I worked in a writing center. In fact, a writing center is where I really started to learn about teaching.  This means that I still think of learning through a writing-centric lens at many times, and that I have high expectations of writing centers and very specific ideas about what I think they do there that may not actually apply to any particular writing center.

So, when I am working on the reference desk, I often end up doing things that could very easily be described as writing instruction. I don’t usually look at drafts, but I help students interpret assignments. I work with them on their topics to help them figure out what is feasible and to determine the appropriate breadth of a paper topic.  I talk with them about how sources can be used.  Sometimes we talk about scholarly discourse, though I don’t use these words explicitly. Some of this probably comes from the background I’ve described, and some of it is just the nature of the reference desk. Students who come to the reference desk are often writing papers, and their struggles are sometimes related to sources and sometimes stem from an unclear idea of exactly what is expected of them or exactly what they want to do.

When I worked in a writing center, we were committed to working with students at all stages of the writing process. We often talked about research—it’s part of writing, after all—and we were very conscious of figuring out where students were in the process.  We were pretty explicit when talking with them about this process and what we thought the next steps were, and we were realistic about not being able to take the paper all the way to where it needed to be in a single session. It was important to give some thought to exactly what could be done at that particular moment and to be aware that there are other stages and other relationships involved in students’ writing.

I think this is a good model.  I think librarians do a lot of these things instinctively; at least, I hope we do, because we don’t spend a lot of time talking about it.  We talk about the reference interview and finding out what a student’s needs are, but not about identifying what stage the student is stuck at, and certainly not to make these connections to writing.  The ACRL information literacy standards appear to describe a (simplified, idealized) linear research process, and we don’t always complicate it by talking about how messy research can be in real life—and if research is complicated, teaching research certainly isn’t simple! But our models tend to simplify.  I have often encountered an assumption that we intervene at a very particular part of the writing/research process and that the help we provide to students is very specific—that we help them to identify useful resources and demonstrate how they may do so for themselves.  In reality, though, sometimes helping the students to understand what they need involves delving into this writing process.

But it can be overwhelming to encounter a student who needs serious writing help at the reference desk.  Such students may well see my writing advice as peripheral to their question, since after all, they don’t expect writing help from a librarian.

I talked with some librarians at ACRL who were presenting posters on writing center/library collaborations; it seemed at the time like such an obvious, brilliant thing to do, and it still seems that way. I wonder if there are other ways to build up relationships with the writing folks on my campus.

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